Now here’s one for ChatGPT: How many Railway Taverns are there next to railway stations in England? Well not in Forest Gate or at least not now. Our lovely Forest Tavern was called the Railway Hotel for much of the early 20th century and the Forest Tavern in the 1920s. I have no idea when the name was changed but perhaps someone knows. The Tavern was rebuilt in 1926 and at that time it was a Cannon Brewery public house.

Forest Tavern in the early 20th century

At some point it was closed for a while and again I am not sure of the date but am now on firmer ground as around two years ago it was bought by the Portobello Brewery. The set up is interesting as the overall enterprise consists of two separate businesses, one the Brewery and the other the chain of pubs, of which there are 21. In London the largest, Westow House, is in Crystal Palace, the nearest to Forest Gate, the Traveller’s Friend in Woodford. Some of the chain of pubs are in Brighton including the Walrus and, on the seafront, the Sea Horse. A young relative of mine has just bought a flat in Brighton so I shall certainly be going down there – to see her and try the two Portobello hostelries. There may soon be more as Portobello are actively looking to buy more pubs.

All the information for this article was given to me by Chris the new manager. His is an interesting long term (well, not so long term as he is still young) connection to the pub trade. He took his first pub job in his late teens and has been doing it ever since. He knew it would be a hard life but it attracted him because it was a high energy, fun job. He told me things have changed now as more regulations have been introduced; sugar taxes, calorie counting, allergen awareness are now all part of providing good interesting menus. So there has been a shift from fun to management. Managing food outlets is also more complex given the current instability of some food chains. There is a lot of juggling of supplies and menu adjustments that now make up the average day. However even with the shift from fun to management I got the strong impression that Chris is still very much enjoying what he is doing.

There’s more to running a pub than just providing good food.

A pub manager must be constantly aware of the customers, who they are and how many are there. The Forest Tavern is very much family orientated and a local place for families to get together (including their dogs, dog lovers note). The opening of the Elizabeth Line has been a game changer with an increase in afterwork ‘footfall'. Usually trade increases with bank holidays and there was a general expectation that the Coronation would drive sales. However business turned out to be the same as any other bank holiday weekend. How can anyone compete with street parties?

Pub managers also manage staff although in any successful enterprise this is also about leadership of a team. Staff recruitment has certainly changed.

Chris told me that pre-Covid a job advert would attract up to 100 CVs but now this is more like 10.

It is particularly difficult to find chefs. Many found other work when the hospitality sector closed down, for example as delivery drivers and many have continued with their new career. But we are lucky in having a local pub thath as overcome these problems. The head chef has built and trained a very stable team. And training is of course what builds a happy and successful team.

Anyone who has gone to Woodgrange Road in the past few weeks has seen that the Tavern is being renovated. My heart sank. So many pubs have their character ripped from them and they join the army of soulless ‘roadhouses' (how else to describe them?) Happily not our lovely local. All the ambience is still there. Original features are preserved such as the exposed brickwork, the fireplaces and the cream tiles by the entrance.

Preserving original features including cream tiling

The paintwork is not a million miles from what was there before. It is still happily a little dark although the new lighting gives it a warm glow. The back room which was always somewhat neglected space is now a large welcoming area. The new features such as the wooden bookcases blend in well and add interest to the place.

It is no surprise that it was Chris who was brought in to manage the renewal of the pub. This is the 8th pub renovation he has been involved in so he knows all about the dust and stresses and strains of keeping to deadlines. He says that in his experience there are constant doubts on progress but in the end everything comes together leaving only the ‘snagging' on the last one or two days before opening. I only know of one London building project that came in on time and on budget and that was St Pancras Station. But make way, St Pancras, you have a rival. The Forest Tavern renovation also came in on time and on budget.

The refurbished main entrance room

To finish with a personal anecdote. Last year a family of friends from France came to stay with me. They wanted to experience a typical London pub and eat fish and chips. One small problem. One of my friends can only eat gluten free food so I went up to the Tavern to ask if they could make batter if I took a bag of gluten free flour. Before my friends left for a day of sightseeing they also asked if there was any music. I didn’t know. When I asked the then manager about the gluten free batter I was told they had the flour in stock so no problem. And that evening was the jamming night. So when the family came back from central London I told them they had a typical London pub, fish and chips, gluten free batter and live music. They were very impressed.

I learned since that if it had been other nights they could have had an open mic evening or live music. That in my opinion is a great pub – and I haven't even mentioned the beer. But I am not a connoisseur as I only drink wine!

I have left the best until last. I am sure many of us in Forest Gate are delighted to see the old Cannon Brewery sign restored to its former glory.

Check out Forest Tavern website here and for further info follow @e7foresttavern